This is one ugly family gathered in Big Daddy's Mississippi Delta home to celebrate the patriarch's 65th birthday, and almost everyone in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof but Big Daddy himself knows that he's dying. There's Big Mama, operating in an acute state of denial; son Gooper, accompanied by his fecund wife, Mae, and brood of children; and Brick, the favored son, attempting to drink himself into oblivion. Watching everyone with a calculating eye is Brick's sexy wife, Maggie, who's determined that Brick, rather than Gooper, should inherit the family's huge wealth. Big Daddy hates Big Mama, who adores him but loathes Gooper. Gooper and Mae despise everyone and are busy spying on Brick and Maggie. Brick has refused to sleep with Maggie for some time: Uh-oh. No sex, no heirs for the Big Parents. And Maggie, wild with sexual frustration, is determined to get the financial security she needs.
We're in Tennessee Williams's South, an overheated place seething with rage, sexual repression and what Brick and Big Daddy call -- simultaneously elongating the vowels and almost spitting out the word and biting off its tail -- "mendacity." The characters are totemic, the language passionate and poetic, with everything, including Big Daddy's cancer, filled with fierce symbolism. This is a time and place where goodness retreats to the shadows, sustaining itself on magic and mysticism; there's no honor in success; the pure of heart die tragically; and the angels of redemption are misfits, drunks and losers.
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The ethos of Cat would have been far better understood by audiences in the 1950s, when the play was written, and it presents modern directors with a conundrum: Create a period piece; recalibrate the style and tone and search for contemporary relevance; or simply set the stage, have your actors speak the words with honesty and feeling, and trust that the power of the play endures. Brenda Cook hasn't really done any of these things at the Aurora Fox. Her Cat On a Hot Tin Roof doesn't feel thought-through; it's a stolid trudge, lacking fluidity and insight. The set and costumes fail to add dimension; the lighting convincingly conveys neither fireworks and lightning nor the rich, black Mississippi night. Gooper and Mae are presented as one-dimensional caricatures. (In Vintage Theatre's recent production of Cat, Gooper was allowed one moment of genuine pathos as he reacted to Big Daddy's bullying, and the children in that cast provided both fodder for Maggie's irritation and a sense of life ongoing.) The portrayal of the Reverend Tooker verges on farce. Worst of all, Rebecca Gibel plays Maggie without depth or nuance, as something close to a strident, posing, shoulder-twitching teenager.
And yet, you must see this production. You must see it because Chris Reid's Brick approaches greatness -- and believe me, that's not a word I use lightly. He's willing to reveal the character's far-from-romantic flaws -- his cowardice and cruelty -- as well as his passion, pain, subtlety and twisted humor. Reid knows when to hold back and when to explode. He knows how to deal with silence -- whether using it as a weapon or a shield, or simply vanishing into it. When an actor works from a place this deep, he can't put a foot wrong. He's in that almost-mystical state that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi characterized as "flow." It wouldn't matter if he vomited on stage or accidentally knocked over furniture: It would be the character's misstep, not the actor's. In fact, it wouldn't be a misstep, but an astonishing new interpretation.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora
Presented by the Aurora Fox Arts Center through May 13, 303-739-1970, www.auroragov.org.
There are two other excellent performances: one from Judy Phelan-Hill, who makes Big Mama gentle and fuddled and unexpectedly strong; and in the long, fraught scene between Brick and Big Daddy, Jack Casperson meets Reid's white-hot fire with power and truth of his own.
The kind of acting that Reid does isn't easy. To do it, you have to put your very self aside and allow someone alien -- perhaps someone frightening or destructive -- to enter your body and inhabit your mind. It requires faith; it's a kind of little death; it validates the work of historians who contend that theater stems from religious ritual and that its roots are holy.